It’s a trite but truism that there are certain films, certain albums, and certain books that serve as barometers for where we are in life: By our late-twenties, the Holden Caulfield who articulated everything we hoped that we hoped the green hair we had in high school would (but didn’t) had become that creeper who cornered us in the kitchens at house parties and shared weirdly personal details that were entirely unrelated to the conversation. When we were fifteen, the meanings behind a Tori Amos song were like goldfish flitting through a quick stream, we could glimpse them, but not catch them. We believed that they’d stop eluding us when we were older, but when we were older, we realized that we’d never understand what it meant for Jupiter to be gay or blue and we felt strangely cheated by this; then, once we’d had our hearts well and thoroughly broken for the first time, we found ourselves skipping backward on our iPods, just to hear her sing “thought we both could use a friend to run to,” and what we felt was more important that what we could understand.
The narrative of these reevaluations is usually pretty straight forward: As we grow up, become more savvy, more experienced, we shuck off the overly-earnest, the overly-emotional. As grown-ups, we’re obliged to appreciate the ironic, the quietly devastating, the sparse and meditative. We dread revisiting old favorites because the reasons we related to them have become the aspects of ourselves that we’re (supposed to be) the most embarrassed by. That said, we still do have a few precious loves from adolescence that age well; for me, one of those loves is Joy Division. I came to Joy Division—to my later chagrin—via the comic book The Crow (which I came to, much to my chagrin, after watching the movie version no less than seven times in the theater)–and had my suspicions about human nature and the world it wrought affirmed through the wry despondency of Ian Curtis’ lyrics. Then there was the music, with its sledgehammer pulse and the adroit elegance of a man jumping between rooftops.
So, back in 2007, when I first heard about Anton Corbjin’s Ian Curtis biopic, Control, I was intrigued, and surprisingly unnerved. The promotional materials featured close-ups of spectrally handsome lead actor Sam Riley—with his haunted eyes and a cigarettes dangling from his lips—that conjured back my horrible high school poetry about James Dean. I feared it would be something my 14-year-old self would love, something my (then) 25-year-old self would be mortified by.
Then, one evening, my now-28-year-old self, battling through that unique state of frazzle and fatigue that a bad workday induces, channel-surfed upon the movie. It sparked an intensity in feeling I haven’t experienced since I watched Rebel Without A Cause. Only this time, I didn’t see myself reflected as I’d like to be, the architect of a beautiful rebellion that truly teaches all the powers that be; I saw myself as I am, as I feared I’d be when I was 25 and about to graduate with my MFA: burnt out on a day job while trying to make it as an artist, struggling with urges for a quiet domesticity while still desperate to explore. There was one scene, small but crucial, that I wish I could have shared with my sixteen-year-old self.
Curtis is in his living room, lost in the the notebook perched on his knees, his face in that soft yet furrowed look of inspiration. His flow is broken when his young wife—who, in those earlier scrappy-love courtship sequences, wore her leather and her faux-fur and her sly spirit of up-for-anything with pride—calls him to bed, but only because he has work in the morning. She’s wearing a housedress that even my thick-ankled Italian grandmother would’ve deemed too frumpy. His expression—resignation (she is right, technically) and frustration (but he was so close to the perfect word) –flickers across his face like a matchstick that won’t quite catch. My sixteen-year-old self wouldn’t have caught that look, but I’d like to explain its true significance to her: There’s what you have to do, and what you love to do. And when those two things are the same thing, your life can be very fucking hard indeed.
The truth is, even though I should be grateful for being smarter than I was before, I mourn my own naiveté. From one of my high school journals: “Was listening to Joy Division today, and realized that I want to paint the way he writes…beautiful and ugly and effortless.” The adolescent ideal of artistic ideation is two-fold: That overwhelming sentiment—usually along the lines of doom and gloom—inspires the frantic pounding of fingertips over keys (typewriters and pianos alike), the thrust of brush over canvas, and that these efforts are always immediately immaculate. Anything less is mere craftwork, pedestrian. Revision is the madwoman in the attic.
Control unquestionably indulges in mythologizing its protagonist. Indeed, the film has Curtis scrawling the lyrics to “Twenty-Four Hours” just hours before his suicide, literally crying as he writes, a cigarette ashing between his trembling fingers. The camera tightens on Riley’s face, which displays the rapt, sensuous sorrow of a saint in a Renaissance painting. An elegiac slowed-tempo version of the song plays in the background. These are signifiers of despair, enough to move anyone who hasn’t lived long enough to regret anything. The true moment of pathos, the moment that explains (as much as anything could) why Curtis could take his own life is a smaller, subtler moment. After yet another epileptic fit hurls him to the floor, he slowly sits up, rubbing the top of his head; the word “ow” breaks from his lips. It is a child’s helpless cry, the cry that we’ve been told being strong, being competent, being grown-ups, means we have to suppress.
This cry, the culmination of so many disappointments—from the day job that blots out your creative thoughts yet can’t quite pay all the bills, to the lover who leaves you, not with the passion of slammed doors but with a long sigh—this is what I would tell my teenaged self—who thought that not having a solo show at the Whitney by 21, or a novel excerpted in The New Yorker by 23 (at the latest) would’ve been nothing less than irredeemable failure—this will be your undoing.
I wonder, though, if Control is winking at us in Curtis’ swan song scene. The film makes its strongest points with subtlety. When Curtis’ wife Deborah (Samantha Morton) discovers his affair with a foxy foreign journalist, there are no beds burned or dishes thrown, not even a raised voice. There are only two people on opposite sides of a door. Riley tucks his spindly frame into a corner, as though the intensity of his opposing desires—for the drowsy comfort of domesticity, and for the rush of adolescent abandon that accompanies a new romantic connection—has made him so desperate to hide away that he is trying to burrow inside himself.
Just when the viewer begins to pity him, the film reminds us that despite his brilliance, he is still capable of craven snakery: He tells his wife that he still loves her, even though the viewer will come to see—via his repeated transgressions—that he has no intention of leaving his lover. She’s ever-present yet not really there; they can have earnest conversations about Siouxsie and the Banshees and their upbringings, and she can cradle his head in her lap after he seizes on-stage but she will never have to be apart of the work-a-day grit that keeps a mortgage paid. She will never, as Deborah does in an early scene, waddle many months pregnant into the sweltering backstage of a rock club and implicitly remind the nubile young fan-girls and the eager musicians about the consequences of what they’re hoping to consummate.
Deborah’s response to his professed love, a signed “What does that mean?” brutally dismantles the notion of emotional need as justification for destructiveness. Here, the film suggests that the impulsivity and self-absorption that leads someone to believe that their personal expressions deserve a broad audience, can also make them a staggering narcissist and a selfish prick.
Perhaps, then, we elevate the artist from a mere human being who is capable of writing truly haunting music but also happens to cheat on his wife, to a dark Dionysus wrecked by his own excesses because this elevation makes him such a grand, untenable figure that we can excuse ourselves for not acquiring his level of recognition. We’re not brilliant enough to compose the phrase “love’s shattered pride” when we’re feeling creatively potent, let alone when we’ve wept ourselves dry and death has become our only option. There’s no way Curtis even wrote those words immediately preceding his suicide; that song was already recorded on Closer, the album Joy Division was touring to support (or was planning to support) before Curtis killed himself.
Situating lyrics about shattered pride directly in relation with an artist’s suicide is clearly intentional. When viewed through the lens of artistic idealism, the filmmakers’ choice to negotiate chronology in this way is a lament against the conventions of a world that imposes oppressive blandnesses like marriage and mortgage, children and desk jobs upon the unbridled drive of a true creative. (I’m pretty sure the words “unbridled drive of a true creative”might have appeared in my high school journal. I was probably grounded for failing an algebra test because I spent study hall doodling ).
However, I think the filmmakers are more invested in complicating this artistic idealism than in affirming it. Though they radically re-imagine the genesis of “Twenty-Four Hours” and give us the obligatory “Love Will Tear Us Apart” montage of Ian, his lover Annik, and wife Deborah, in various poses of wistful contemplation, they also show us a moment of inspiration that is rooted in the hum-drum world of office work.
As a career counselor with a government-sponsored employment agency, Curtis encounters a woman with epilepsy; she sits across from him wearing a freshly-ironed first-day-of-school jumper—and a helmet. The helmet has been so attentively tied around her chin, one could imagine her, or perhaps her mother, fastening the straps as though fixing a ribbon in her hair. The strained optimism with which she speaks is incredibly moving, and Riley-as-Curtis allows his face to open—ever so slightly—with hopefulness; if this woman can soldier on through small victories against the illness they share, then perhaps he can too, while balancing his life as a young husband with being a musician.
This tender moment is broken when the woman drops convulsing to the floor; she twitches as though something is clawing itself out of her. As he looks down at her, Curtis no doubt sees this something as life itself—at least life worth living. It is brutal for the viewer—let alone the “character” to imagine his mind, the same mind that spins words into images, and images into rhythm—ever tombed in that leather casing.
Yet this woman forms the emotional axis of one of Joy Division’s most famous songs—the song that, in part, at least, gives the film its title—“She’s Lost Control.” Her writhing body physically expresses the tension between control and abandon, while also challenging the connotations commonly associated with each word. She is simultaneously pushed out of and locked into her body; the scene’s brutal realism is an anchor against the more idealistic view of illness as a lightning-bolt-from-the-gods source of inspiration.
Even when Curtis adopts a style of dancing that mimics his epilepsy, one gets the sense that he’s trying to make something useful—if not beautiful—out of his pain, and that, in the end, it isn’t even worth it. It’s no coincidence that the one time we see Riley’s interpretation of Curtis’ famous dance, during a performance of “Dead Souls,” the dance becomes a true epileptic fit. The fact that this happens just as he arrives at “they keep calling me” allows an easy interpretation of the fit as a true calling from the muse; however, seeing Curtis backstage, crumpled and weeping, clearly devastated by what has just happened to him, renders that interpretation moot. Clearly, no one watching this would want that call.
The call that pushes Curtis to pursue his artistic ambition is a call he half-heartedly makes to keep the day job he supposes he ought to care about if he wants to keep up with the mortgage. After the long nights of playing in clubs have left him drowsing at his desk, his supervisor informs him that he needs to consider which of his two jobs he wants to pursue. Of course, the dry sarcasm in the supervisor’s voice makes it glaringly apparent which job a real grown-up ought to stick with. And Curtis does try; however, the first business-related call he makes is a follow-up call to the woman with epilepsy. A relative tells him that the woman has died, and this is the push Curtis needs to get on with the job he really wants to do. It’s another trite-but-truism that life is short, yet another to say that you only live once.
Whenever I leave the office building where I grind away eight hours of my day, I see the punk girls getting off the bus. They’re wearing everything I used to wear: ratted black jackets and strategically slashed band t-shirts. Skunk-stripes of white-blond raze their black hair and their arms are carved up. The razor marks are mostly random zig-zags, but sometimes they make words, though the girls have long walked by me before I could read them. They’ll lift their eyes from the text they were reading or the cigarette they were lighting and stare back at me as though I’m just another skirt-suit. I can see them imagining my life—unexceptional suburbanite and office drone. My life is reduced to the commas that need un-splicing and all the emails I must send before day’s end. Then I remember that my life was once epic journal entries about one unattainable love or another, or the art the world would miss out on when I was prematurely and devastatingly dead.
My world wasn’t any bigger back then, it just felt that way. Nowadays, stories about sideshow freaks and Sicilian families and the threads of essays all percolate inside my head, waiting for five o’clock to come so I can let loose with them; nowadays I have the skill and the savvy to make each of them sing.